Schlocktoberfest #23: The Funhouse
Ah, the lure of the Carnival. Sleaze, sawdust and corn dogs. Where have they gone? Even in Nutley we had one visit every year, and while it only had rides and hawkers trying to get you to toss rings on bottles to get that awesome Motley Crue mirror, it felt like the slimy carnival from Something Wicked This Way Comes, where fortune tellers and freak shows lurked in the tents. The Funhouse by Tobe Hooper isn’t as magical as Ray Bradbury’s childhood tale, but it’s a fun slasher fest with a sideshow freak monster designed by Rick Baker, so there’s something to like.
The movie spends a lot of time setting up atmosphere; two teenage couples go to see the freaks and fun, and we follow them around the tents. There’s the usual puke-inducing rides and wallet-cleansing games, but this is an old-timey carnival with a burlesque act and a sideshow tent. The boys peep through a hole in the tent and see the dirty old men ogling topless gals dancin’ the cooch. The barkers and hawkers are appropriately stubbly and sleazy; Kevin Conway (the mailman from Funny Farm) plays the ringleader, looking like a depraved leprechaun.
When the kids go to the freak show, it is understated masterpiece of foreshadowing. It keeps everything in the bounds of reality. Like a real sideshow, all you see are some cows with birth defects- pretty ugly ones- like the infamous two-headed cow. Nothing makes the stomach twitch like something with two faces melded together. The cows look so good that I couldn’t tell if ol’ Tobe raided a dairy farm or if Rick Baker made them up. That’s a fine compliment for an ’80s film. Rick Baker’s done everything from the apes in Greystoke to the bizarre werewolf in An American Werewolf in London, so you expect great things from him.As the kids sneak around, they eventually get to the fortune teller; they mock the old gypsy woman, which is never a good idea. She doesn’t put a curse on them, she just curses at them, kicking them out of her trailer. She’s performed for the royalty of Europe, damn it. They decide to spy on her through the roof of her trailer, and to their delight, a sideshow geek in a Frankstein mask comes in, trying to pay the woman for sex. Stifling snorts and chuckles, they watch as she rips him off, taking his $100 for a little rumpy-pumpy… but as you well know, never sexually torment an incoherent freak in a mask. They watch in horror as he strangles her, and then get caught trying to escape by Freako’s father- who turns out to be the leader of the show.
We hear him berating the poor freak, who resembles Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in being a babbling mutant freak version of Lenny from Of Mice and Men, and learn that this ain’t the first time he’s killed. Usually it’s some mark in one of the towns they pass through, but this time he’s killed family. So to clean up his mess, Dad tells him he has to kill the witnesses. The kids are conveniently caught in the Fun House of the title, so it shouldn’t be too hard…The rest of the film plays out like a typical slasher, with the Monster- actually named Gunther- unmasked and hunting down his prey. When Daddy tears the mask off, we see li’l Gunther is an albino with some interesting facial features. I can barely describe them. At first glance he looks like one of the “two-headed” cows, where two faces have melded, but now that I look at stills, he barely looks human. As much as I admire Rick Baker, the design really falls flat. In a human freakshow with deformed fetuses in jars, my expectation was for a bizarre deformity, but “Gunther” almost looks alien. In fact, he reminded me of the Zandozan from The Last Starfighter. This is unfortunate, for he sticks out like a sore thumb. The X-Files episode set at a traveling sideshow may have cribbed from Basket Case but it was more fitting a critter than this one turns out to be.
After this letdown, the movie never really worked for me. Tobe uses some good twists inside the funhouse as the bad guys cut down the kids, with trap doors and nooses from above, and making them attack each other in the dark. There’s no hall of mirrors and most of the scares are the animatronic haunted house tricks popping out on them. One thing I did like was that Gunther isn’t superhuman. Sure, he’s got fangs like a Wookelar, but he never uses them; he just sort of screams and throws people around. Of course in a slasher, there’s always one survivor- this time the girl isn’t plucky, just lucky. The movie is bookended with the girl running into a crazy old lady, telling her that “God is watching.” I bet He’d think Mr. Hooper could do better, too.